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19th Annual EA Education Conference 2006

Extensive Reading: A Simple Technique with Outstanding


Thomas KOCH, Kinki University, Osaka, Japan

Extensive Reading has been shown to be an effective technique for language

acquisition. This paper briefly looks at reading’s role in education and language
learning and then further examines the benefits and weaknesses of many of the
assumptions and procedures used by general extensive reading programs. It
then examines Furukawa’s (2006) Start with Simple Stories extensive reading
program and attempts to demonstrate the value of having students start the SSS
program by setting the goal of reading one million words of easy English.


Since the Greeks and Romans published books about their views of the world, reading has been
the major language skill used in academic settings for language learning. The classical method of
education was the standard for a good education in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. When the
focus turned to language learning itself, grammar-translation became the favorite.

More recently, extensive reading (ER) programs have become more popular in language learning
as a number of high profile scholars in language education have concluded that ER is an
extremely effective way of language learning. Numerous articles have been published showing
the linguistic gains that come from ER.

In attempting to improve on ER programs in Japan, a couple of new adjustments have been

made to the ER program. One of the more recent and promising methods incorporates two
important ideas first presented by Kunihide Sakai. First, use very easy readers, and second,
measure progress by counting words, not books. Akio Furukawa has formalized his program
using Professor Sakai`s ideas in the Start with Simple Stories (SSS) method (Furukawa, 2006).
ER will be examined after briefly looking at the historical importance of reading in education and
language learning.


Reading was the major element used in language learning in academic settings in the classical
method. In the classical method of education, language learning took place in the first three or
four years of elementary school and included the learning of Latin and Greek. Many historians
reference the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as the age of the classical method of education.
However, as early at the 16th century, Rabelais wrote of an imaginary monastery in which he
discusses the learning of Greek, Hebrew and Latin as part of an ideal education (Cohen, J. M.
1955 quoted by Kreis, 2000).

The purpose of the classical method of education was to learn Latin and Greek as a means to
access the ancient wisdom that was handed down. The founding fathers of the United States of
America are well known for their knowledge of the Roman and Greek classics. Thomas Jefferson
in a letter to John Brazier stated, “Among the values of classical learning, I estimate the luxury of
reading the Greek and Roman authors in all the beauties of their originals” (Fleming: See
references. p.1). In classical education, the primary goal was not to learn a language, but rather
to learn Latin and Greek in order to access the knowledge that was found within them. In this
classical context, the learning of language was a means to an end and not the end itself. The way
that the classics were accessed was through reading.

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In the latter part of the 19th century the classical method evolved into the grammar-translation
method (GTM), in which reading and translating were used to learn the target language. The
main purpose of this method was to learn the language. In the GTM context, language learning
was not a means to access knowledge, but rather the end itself. In Japan, GTM is still the most
popular way of teaching English.

Lately, as the emphasis has moved to communicative skills, reading and writing have become
just one of the two branches of language learning. The other branch is listening and speaking.
With an increase in the number of classes focusing on a single skill, there are times when these
two branches are viewed as quite independent of each other.


What is Extensive Reading?

The term extensive reading was first used by H.E. Palmer in 1917 to differentiate it from intensive
reading, which focuses on the detailed examination and study of a somewhat challenging foreign
language passage in order to learn and practice reading skills. In intensive reading, the class
usually begins with a pre-reading exercise. Then the passage of about 150 to 300 words is
studied as a class. It is usually followed by various exercises in order to give the students an
opportunity to interact with the material, classmates and the teacher.

ER, on the other hand, involves the reading of large amounts material from any subject matter
that the student may choose. ER has gone through various modifications and has been called
reading for pleasure, voluntary reading and Sustained Silent Reading in which the teacher and
the students read silently for a set amount of time (Bamford & Day, 1997). Bamford & Day, (1997)
provided ten elements that characterize extensive reading. Two of these elements are particularly
important to our understanding of ER:

“(1) Students read as much as possible, perhaps in and definitely out of the classroom.”

“(6) Reading materials are well within the linguistic competence of the students in terms of
vocabulary and grammar. Dictionaries are rarely used while reading because the constant
stopping to look up words makes fluent reading difficult.”

Although the order of the elements was changed in later publications (Bamford & Day, 1998), it is
noteworthy that “Students read as much as possible” was listed first in the 1997 publication. This
phrase, although obviously essential, struck me as quite weak and without direction. How much is
“as much as possible”? The problem is that “as much as possible” provides no gauge in which the
teacher or the student can quantify or track progress. Furthermore, most people would agree that
the more students interact with the language whether that be reading, writing, listening or
speaking, the better their language skills are going to be.


One of the concepts that important to understand is the difference in process goals and
production goals. Its relevance to reading and language learning will be better understood as the
concept is explained.

An example of someone who understands the difference between process and production goals
is the golfer, Tiger Woods. About five years ago, even though he had been very successful, he
decided to take one year to change his golf swing. The reason for the change was because
Woods believed that the process goal of a proper swing results in the production goal of winning
tournaments. To attempt such a dramatic change in his swing at that particular time in his career
shows that Woods believed that the process goal of a proper swing was critical to his future

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In education, language teachers also use process goals in order to reach the production goal or
final goal of increasing language acquisition. Many educators believe that the importance of the
process goal of ER is as important to language acquisition as Wood’s swing is to his ability to win
golf tournaments. That is why some educators are convinced that ER is the most important part
of a language program. Bamford and Day’s (1997) sixth element, “Reading materials are well
within the linguistic competence of the students in terms of vocabulary and grammar” states the
important of the level of the materials, but is often violated in practice.


Rob Waring (2001) has done a review of the literature on the benefits of ER and found many
studies that reported gains in language skills. Increases in linguistic proficiency were reported by
six studies. Seven studies found improvements in writing. One study reported improvements in
spelling. Nine studies described improvements in vocabulary. Five studies reported that ER
played an important role in developing a positive attitude toward reading and motivating students
to read more. One study found that extensive reading improved oral proficiency.

In another study that was not included in Waring`s list, Huang and van Naerssen (1987) related
that reading practice was the primary element in determining oral proficiency. However, the main
advantage of ER is that it allows the student to become an independent learner which will benefit
the individual throughout life. These benefits may relate to many areas of a person’s life whether
the goal is professional, educational or social.


Krashen`s Input Hypothesis is one of the most convincing arguments for the use of extensive
reading. The input hypothesis is described as follows: “...the learner improves and progresses
along the 'natural order' when he/she receives second language 'input' that is one step beyond
his/her current stage of linguistic competence. For example, if a learner is at a stage 'i', then
acquisition takes place when he/she is exposed to 'Comprehensible Input' that belongs to level 'i
+ 1'.” (See internet references)

When discussing the input hypothesis, most educators focus on the `i + 1` formula. The result is
that teachers attempt to increase learning efficiency by guessing where the students` `i+1` level
might be and providing materials that might meet this criteria. This is a common mistake since it
is impossible to determine what the student’s ‘i+1’ is. The end result is that overly difficult or
inappropriate materials are being used in the classroom. Because of the difficulty encountered by
the students, the students lose interest and avoid interacting with the language in the amounts
that are necessary to acquire the language. In most of Krashen`s articles concerning ER, he
rarely mentions this formula and states in general terms that comprehensible input should be
used. The need for comprehensible input is generally accepted in principle, but as mentioned
before, it is often ignored in practice.


The dilemma that arises from the confusion about the concept of comprehensible input and the
`i+1` formula is how to maximize learning at the `i+1` level when there is no way to know what a
student’s `i+1` level is. So we must begin with materials that are clearly within the student’s level
of comprehension.

Laufer (1989) and Liu and Nation (1985) noted that students should be familiar with at least 95%
of the vocabulary in the teaching material. Nation, (1999) suggests it should be at least 98%.

What would be the result if we started with the goal of insuring that 100% of the materials used
were within the student’s comprehensible range? The result would be that the student would be
provided with materials at the lower zones of the student’s comprehension range. This would give

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the student the time needed to gradually develop the habit and skills that are necessary in a good
ER program. As the students continued the reading program, students would be exposed to the
‘+1’ level gradually and naturally.

Referring back to the differences between process and production goals, language acquisition
should not be the focus of language teaching. Acquisition is incidental and natural the more the
student engages in the use of the target language within the comprehensible level. Our entire
focus should be to provide materials at the comprehensible level and not attempt to provide
materials at the unknowable `i+1` level.


When Krashen`s input hypothesis is viewed as a convincing argument for the need of large
amounts of input, ER is the best way to supply the large volume of comprehensible input needed.
In a 90-minute intensive reading class, for example, students read a passage of about 150 to 250
words. In addition, they do a number of vocabulary and comprehension exercises. The total
number of words of reading input may be between 250-500 words. In sustained silent reading,
the students can read about one hundred words per minute, so if they read for sixty minutes they
would be exposed to about 6000 words. In a one year program of thirty classes, an intensive
reading class provides about 15,000 words as compared to the 180,000 words provided in a
sustained silent reading ER program.

The Furukawa (2006) Start with Simple Stories (SSS) Extensive Reading Program.

The SSS ER program sets a goal for students to read one million words of easy English. There
are three simple reading rules. They are as follows:
• First, do not use dictionaries.
• Second, skip over any words that are not known by the reader.
• Third, if the book is too difficult or boring, stop reading and get a new book.

The SSS program is appropriate for all students at all levels. It gets students to begin reading
very easy books. The purpose of the program is to insure that students are fluent readers from
the beginning as opposed to making fluency a future goal. The only way to insure that the
students are fluent from the beginning is to start with very easy readers.

The books at this level are intended for English-speaking children and may range from 40 – 200
total words with lots of pictures and illustrations. Recommended series include the Oxford
Reading Tree, Longman’s Literacy Land and Story Street, Welcome Books by Scholastic and
Macmillan’s Springboard. (Furukawa, 2006)

As compared to general ER programs in which the focus is for students to read outside of the
classroom, in the SSS ER program sustained silent reading is begun in the classroom. This
allows the teacher to monitor the students` reading habits and insure that the students are
actually reading. They may not read at home until they have more experience reading alone and
become more comfortable with the process.


Nishizawa, (2006) noted the following results from using the SSS program:
• an improvement in communication skills
• an increase in TOEIC scores in the advance course in which the average TOEIC scores
exceeded the average scores at similar institutions for the first time
• an increase in the willingness of the students to read in children’s books and graded
readers in English

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• an improvement in listening comprehension

• a change in reading style in which the students were reading and thinking in English
rather than translating into Japanese.


Earlier it was mentioned that there were two possible weaknesses in general ER programs. First,
other than `reading as much as possible`, students had few guidelines on how much they should
be reading. Second, because of the excessive amount of emphasis on Krashen`s i+1 input
formula, teachers were focusing on the `+1` and trying to guess what the student`s +1 might be.
Thus, they may be choosing materials that are, in fact, more difficult than `+1` and, therefore,
could not result in acquisition. The students not only did not learn the language, but also
experienced frustration causing a decrease in motivation that hindered later attempts to learn the

The SSS ER program addresses both of these concerns. First, the students are given a clear
goal that they can achieve. The focus on the number of words is an extremely valuable goal for
the students and an improvement over general ER classes. A word is a word, but a book is not a
book. This is to say that books vary greatly on the amount of comprehensible input that they
provide. The number of words in a book may range from twenty to thousands. So counting books
is not an accurate way of judging how much a student has read. Counting the number of words is
very precise and gives the teacher the ability to evaluate a student’s progress by looking at the
number of words the student has read (Furukawa, 2006). It should be noted that although the
number of books is not an accurate way of evaluating the total amount of reading, because it is
so ingrained in education, students, teachers and researchers will continue to refer to the number
of books read in evaluating progress or improvements.

Second, in the SSS ER program the students begin reading at the lower regions of their
comprehension levels. This easy reading insures immediate fluency, speed and a firm basis on
which to build their reading habits. These two additions to the ER program provide a solid
foundation that improves the chances that every student can be successful.


This paper has looked at the importance of reading in education and language learning. The
classical method began with reading and translation, but also included logic and rhetoric in the
later years and served as the educational standard until the 20th century. The grammar-
translation method focused on the goal of language learning and separated language learning
from the goal of accessing the knowledge that was to be found in the newly learned language.

Although general ER programs have been shown to improve every area of language learning and
reemphasized the importance of the information that could be learned from the new language, it
lacks a numerical objective that is so important for students and teachers to judge progress. In
addition, even though it clearly states that “reading materials should be well within” the student’s
linguistic competence (Bamford & Day, 1997), materials are often provided that approach ‘i + 1’,
the point at which Krashen hypothesizes that acquisition takes place and are often too difficult for
the students. This results in a lack of language acquisition and causes students to lose the
motivation necessary to engage in the large amounts of comprehensible input necessary for
language acquisition.

The SSS ER method has added modifications that improve on the results of general ER
programs. It presents the goal of reading one million words of easy English and provides both the
teachers and the students an accurate gauge with which to evaluate the student’s progress. In
addition, it starts the reading program with reading materials at the basic levels of the student’s
comprehension. The use of these easy readers results in starting at the level of fluency, rather
than making fluency a future goal. Finally, the SSS ER method advocates reading in the

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classroom in order to permit the students to form good reading habits that will serve them for a
lifetime. It is becoming more obvious that ER and the SSS ER method in particular should be an
essential part of every language program.

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Teacher, 21(5), 6-8. Available online:

Cohen, J. M. (1955): François Rabelais’, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel and
translation. (Harmondsworth: Penguin,).

Day, R. and Banford, J. (1998). Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom. New
York: Cambridge University Press.

Furukawa, A. (2006) SSS Extensive Reading Method Proves Effective Way to Learn English.
SEG (Scientific Education Group), available online at:

Hino, N. (1988). Yakudoku: Japan's dominant tradition in foreign language learning. JALT Journal
10(1 & 2): 46. (Note: Yaku" in Japanese means "translation," and "doku" means reading. ...a
technique or a mental process for reading a foreign language in which the target language
sentence is first translated word by word, and the resulting translation reordered to match
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Huang and van Naerssen (1987) Learning Strategies for Oral Communication. Applied Linguistics
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Laufer, B. (1989).What percentage of text-lexis is essential for comprehension? In: C. Lauren and
M. Nordmann (Eds.). Special language: from humans thinking to thinking machines. Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters.

Liu and Nation (1985). Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context. RELC Journal 16/1: 33-

Mayuzumi, M., M. Kanda. (2006) How to Utilize Easy English Readers in the ER Class.
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Occasional Publication 19. Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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Nishizawa, H. T. Yoshiok, K. Itoh. (2006) Improvement of Engineering Students` Communication

Skills in English through Extensive Reading. IEEJ Trans. FM Vol. 126, No. 7.

Palmer, H.E. (1917). Extensive Reading. IEEJ Trans. FM Vol. 126, No. 7. The scientific study
and teaching of languages. London: Harrap (Reprinted1968 by Oxford University Press)

Kunihide Sakai

Waring, R. 2001. Research in Extensive Reading. Kiyo, Notre Dame Seishin University: Studies
in Foreign Languages and Literature. 25 (1): available online:

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19th Annual EA Education Conference 2006


Dimitrios Thanasoulas 2002. The changing winds and shifting sands of the history of English
Language Teaching. The English Club web site:

Fleming, T , (2000). Foreword:

Kreis, S.

Hill, David. (2004). The Edinburgh Project on Extensive Reading. Available online:


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